A Present from Bilbo|
Summary: After the end of the Battle of the Five Armies, just after Legolas has left, Gandalf talks with the Elvenking... K/U/G suitable for all ages
‘You sent Legolas off in which direction, Thranduil?’ Gandalf shook his head, chortling into his beard as the king’s eyes grew harder than the gemstones he was reputed to covet. ‘Oh, my word! Well, well, well, I think you were sold a bad map, at some point in your past, or a rather faulty compass, but Rivendell is west, not north. You know, we could have travelled together, if I’d realised...’
Thranduil’s voice, while still commanding, had a threnody of exhaustion to it and he was far too pale for Gandalf’s liking. Physically unharmed the king might be, but Mithrandir feared his fëa was damaged, hammered by Legolas’ departure, cut to the quick with the loss of so many bold warriors, their forevers wrenched from them. Gandalf could see their ghosts in the king’s eyes, knew of the heartbreak ahead as the Elvenking spoke to each of their families – for that was the thing, with Thranduil, he never shirked the duty of bad news...
‘Legolas could have come along with Bilbo and I...’
‘Enough, I say, Mithrandir! When do you depart, have you informed me yet?’
The wizard made a non-committal sound in his throat.
‘A day or two, perhaps. Speaking of Bilbo, he has asked, very nicely, if he might have the honour of a few words with you before we leave.’
Thranduil lifted his hand in what might have been either dismissal or acquiescence, turning his head away. He seemed to drift out of the tunnels and into the brightness of the day, too bright, the light glaring, exposing every corpse, glistening the gore and blood of death.
‘Tonight, after moonrise, Gandalf. Bring the Halfling then to my pavilion. If you must.’
‘I don’t understand, Gandalf,’ Bilbo said. ‘Thranduil... I spent some time in those caverns of his, and believe me, I heard some stories... but no complaints. All his subjects... they’re not just loyal to him, they like him...’
‘And why should they not?’ Gandalf extended his legs and puffed on his pipe, sending a stream of smoke bubbles dancing around the inside of the tent. ‘He is a rather fine fellow, you know!’
‘Exactly! He comes across all hard and icy – like those diamonds they say he loves so much – but it doesn’t ring true, somehow...’
‘Yes...?’ Gandalf drew out the word, wondering where Mr Baggins’ meandering thoughts were leading him now.
‘Well, he obviously cares about his people, so why... why send them out to be slaughtered, just for a few trinkets?’
‘That, Bilbo, is a very good question,’ Gandalf said, and puffed on his pipe again to cover the fact that he needed a little thinking time. ‘Do you know the history of the trinkets in question?’
‘No... isn’t it just, in general?’
‘Oh, I doubt that,’ Gandalf said. ‘I think it is one trinket in particular, one set of jewels; the Necklace of Lasgalen... and its history is wreathed in legend and secrets. Some say it bears more than a passing resemblance to Nauglimir, and thus the Dwarves, when they saw it brought back for resetting, could not bear to part with it again. But it was an entirely different thing, I think...
‘The Elves of Mirkwood have many ways in which they differ from the Elves who sailed, and returned from Valinor. Since the Silvans have never seen the Undying Lands, the lands beyond the Sundering Seas matter less to them and they have turned their eyes to the things of Middle Earth and built new traditions. Something you will note if you spend any time with them; they do not speak the names of their dead, once they have been laid to rest; it is almost as if to do so is disrespectful to them. So they might speak of ‘our king’s late wife’, but they will never call her by name.’
‘Hm. Presumably, she had a name?’
‘Yes, she did. But you will never hear me say it; better to follow the customs of the Silvans in this than risk the wrath of Thranduil...’
‘But... wouldn’t that mean she was... well, Silvan? Would it matter the same if she was Sinda, or...’
‘Who can say? Perhaps she adapted to the customs of the Silvans in this. However. The Necklace of Lasgalen was crafted from the finest gemstones that could be had, worked with mithril settings and the purest materials possible. It was made after the Battle of Dagorlad, and while there were those who said it was an extravagance, spending resources on jewels when there was a shattered kingdom to rebuild, others said its very purpose was to acknowledge the losses on the field. For if you looked closely, it could be seen that there was one beautiful diamond drop for every lost company...’
‘So it’s mourning jewellery, then?’
‘Of sorts. It was worn by Thranduil’s wife at certain ceremonies and rituals. After her death, the story goes, it was sent away to the Dwarves, to have one more gemstone added to it.
‘Nobody knows exactly why it happened, or who was to blame. Perhaps, as is almost always the case, there were faults on both sides. We could call it a misunderstanding, and I am sure that if the Dwarves had known how precious it was, would they have withheld it, still? Be that as it may, when Thranduil and his escort arrived to receive the new-made necklace, the casket bearing it, and other, lesser stones, was slammed shut in his face.’
‘I see.’ Bilbo huffled out a little sigh. ‘Well, that explains a lot about Thranduil’s attitude to the Dwarves, doesn’t it?’
‘Perhaps. Yet it may be that he does them a disservice. For who can say if Thrain would not have reconsidered, having made his point? But before he could, before his beard had grown another two inches, destruction fell upon the Dwarves as Smaug took up residence in the Lonely Mountain and the Necklace of Lasgalen, along with the Arkenstone and the rest of the Dwarves’ treasure, was lost.’
A silence fell, Gandalf musing over his pipe, Bilbo taking all this in. It felt right, and yet, at the same time...
The Hobbit shook his head.
‘It doesn’t fit, somehow. No, that’s not it, it’s...unfinished, I think.’
‘Unfinished...?’ Gandalf raised an amused eyebrow. ‘It’s all the story I have,’ he said. ‘If you want more, I suggest you ask Thranduil himself. Come along, it’s just about time. Remember, do all as I told you, and everything will be fine.’
‘What, already?’ Bilbo jumped up and brushed himself off. ‘I couldn’t possibly... that is to say... don’t you know...’ He cleared his throat. ‘Are you sure about this?’
Gandalf thrust his beard forward.
‘Positive,’ he said. ‘And don’t worry about a thing; I’ll be there the whole time.’
‘Is that meant to make me feel better, Gandalf?’
‘Yes. Doesn’t it?’
Bilbo smiled with all the innocence he could muster.
‘Shall I carry the box, or will you, Gandalf?’
Thranduil was ensconced in a tall-backed chair, a mantle of red and gold thrown over it. Somehow, he had found time to wash, to find clothes not spoiled with blood and gore, and his colour looked a little better, Gandalf thought. Of course, it might be the lamplight bringing an illusion of a better pallor to the king’s visage, but then again, there was no doubting Thranduil’s resilience.
‘My Lord Thranduil,’ he said. ‘As requested, here is the Hobbit, Bilbo...’
The Hobbit bowed low, and waited to be called forward.
‘Master Halfling, you wished to speak with me?’
‘Yes, your majesty, I have... a little something for you, just a token...’
An elegant hand waved him to approach and Bilbo bowed again, proffering a key on his outstretched palms. It looked huge, until Thranduil took it idly from him, and then it shrank to look small, insignificant.
‘Indeed? A token, perhaps, of those other keys you stole...?’
‘Um... I said, I’m sorry, I really am... but... anyway, no, it’s for this... Gandalf?’
Gandalf brought forward a small chest and bowed over it, extending it out towards the Elvenking who gestured to one of his guard to bring it to a small table at his side.
‘What is this, might I ask?’
‘You’ll see,’ Bilbo said, temporarily forgetting to how great a personage he spoke. ‘Go on, open it!’
After sparing the Hobbit a withering glance that made Bilbo quail and Gandalf smile into his beard, Thranduil complied, throwing back the lid almost casually. Too much in command of himself to gasp, nevertheless Thranduil’s eyes narrowed and his hand wavered over the contents for a heartbeat before he lifted out the most exquisite network of bright, white diamonds and silken mithril.
‘The Necklace of Lasgalen! How came you by this? How?’
Bilbo stuttered and stammered for a moment.
‘Now, Thranduil, you’re alarming my burglar!’ Gandalf protested. ‘Not that these were burgled, I assure you! Go on, Bilbo – tell your tale!’
‘Well, the... ah... the Dwarves, you see... they wanted you to have it back. Only, being Dwarves...’ He lingered over the word, trying to find the right way to say it. ‘You know, stubborn, proud and all that... they didn’t have the heart to bring it themselves. Not after everything. So I said I’d do it.’
As he spoke, Bilbo watched the Elvenking. Thranduil was touching each and every diamond in turn, his lips moving in silent, unguessable words. He came to a particularly beautiful stone set in the midst of the others, lingered over it, and just for a moment, the Hobbit thought he saw a brightness glinting in the king’s eyes, a glistening. But then Thranduil took a breath, lifted his head, and turned to face the Hobbit again.
‘If you see your Dwarven friends again before you go, you may tell them that your gift was accepted with appreciation; this is an heirloom of my house and its worth is beyond measure.’
‘Yes, your majesty, I’ll be careful not to say you thank them.’
Thranduil raised an eyebrow and tried not to smile.
‘I wish you a safe journey home, Master Baggins.’
He waved a languid hand and returned to contemplation of the gemstones before him. After some moments he sighed. ‘Guards, withdraw to outside the pavilion. It seems Mithrandir wishes to consult with us on matters of state.’
Thranduil waited until the bustle of the departing guards had ceased before looking up from the casket.
‘What now, Mithrandir?’
‘That necklace... I had not realised before what a pretty thing it is.’
‘Indeed. The purest stones, the finest craft.’
‘But not worth going to war over, I think.’
Thranduil stared, amazed to see an almost amused look in Gandalf’s world-weary eyes.
‘Explain your insolence at once, if you please!’
‘Come, Thranduil, you and I, we are old friends...’
‘No, we are not, Mithrandir!’
‘Well, we will be. Or we will need to be, one day. I seek only to understand; how can I defend your stance to the outside world when I do not understand it?’
‘I do not need you to explain me to anyone; it is not necessary. I have my own reasons, my own loyalties to my Silvans and if that is not enough...’
‘You are not avaricious,’ Gandalf said softly. ‘You have cared for your Silvans through many hardships and allow them impertinences I doubt, for instance, Elrond or Galadriel would permit... and yet all the fuss over a handful of diamonds! And, yes, I know, the heirloom of your house, but still...’
‘How well do you know the Silvan heart, Gandalf? How many of their strange rituals have you attended? Many Silvans believe Valinor is forbidden them, they are unshakeable in that. Even so, they believe in Mandos, and in a future for the fëar of their dead but, since they themselves do not look to sail, cannot look for a reunion with their loved ones. And so, at some point, they decided that the reflected light in the heart of the purest diamonds is a glimmer of the light of the West, and that they could speak their memories into these stones and somehow – do not ask me how, it is not my tradition – their beloved dead could be honoured in this way.’
‘The diamonds, then – it is not their value, but their worth? I begin to see...’
‘It provides a way to connect, a sense of communion, a comfort and my Silvans, after Dagorlad, they had such need of comfort...! Whole companies lost, entire families, gone, and after the battle, I found, to my great despair, that many of those dead now had no-one left to remember them, to speak their names in the Dark of the Year, on the Night of the Names...’ Thranduil shook his head. ‘It was decided that we would honour them. One stone for each of the companies, where possible, we spoke their names into the stone, my consort and I, we reflected on their courage, their honour, their sacrifice. The Necklace of Lasgalen became a potent symbol for the survivors, respecting and honouring the dead, all the dead and lost lives.’
Thranduil fell silent for a moment.
‘We did not want to send it away. But she and I had agreed, if either of us died, the other would have a starlight gemstone joined to the necklace, to show solidarity with our Silvan dead even in our own mortality.’
The Elvenking stroked the central diamond with caressing fingertips.
‘This was her stone, my consort’s. After she died, we spoke our memories of her into its heart, Legolas and I, and set it aside with the necklace to have it added. One does not, strictly speaking, need the gemstone to remember the dead. But for the people, for the survivors of Dagorlad, this is so much more than just a necklace. When it was taken from us... it was not theft, it was hostage-taking, it was sacrilege! And not a one of our warriors who would not have fought and died to ransom the Starlight Gemstones of their fallen brothers-in-arms...’
‘Much becomes clear to me now,’ Gandalf said. ‘My dear fellow, I really didn’t think you could be as covetous as all this business made you appear...’
‘I am not your dear fellow, Mithrandir!’ Thranduil snapped. ‘Nor do I care how I seem to any outside my borders. I do what I must to keep my Silvans safe and content, but too many have died today, too many will soon have gemstones of their own, sitting in the safety of my strongroom, waiting for the day their parents or children or spouses come to ask for a moment with the memories... You would do well to remember that this is a Silvan tradition, a private matter and its privacy is to be respected.’
‘My Lord Thranduil, in this matter, it shall be as you wish,’ Gandalf said. ‘I quite see that mention of this outside your borders would give rise to the notion that you are, after all quite a nice, amenable chap...’
‘I thank you for the honour of your visit,’ Thranduil said crisply. ‘I shall not detain you further!’
Bowing again, Gandalf left the pavilion and walked slowly and easily back towards his own billet. A little way from the King’s encampment, as he entered a patch of shadow, he glanced down at his side.
‘Bilbo,’ he said. ‘You can take that ring of yours off now.’
‘Ah.’ Bilbo appeared in the dimness at his side. ‘You noticed that?’
‘No, but I had a feeling you’d want the whole story. And so you have it. Mind, now! Thranduil will not take kindly to learning the secrets of his realm have spread as far abroad as the Shire!’
‘My lips, Gandalf, will be sealed. It is a nice thought, though,’ he said softly into the night. ‘To discover the king’s got a heart, after all.’
‘Just remember, Bilbo, the official story is simply that the necklace is an heirloom, nothing more.’
‘Yes, yes, fine.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘All right. I suppose wars have been fought over less. All that business with the Silmarils...’
‘Old history, Bilbo, and quite another matter entirely...’
Alone in his pavilion, the Elvenking lifted up the Necklace of Lasgalen with wondering eyes. The golden glow of the lamps refracted and glittered through the gemstones, firing them to life. Thranduil sighed, and touched the central stone to his lips.
‘Welcome home, beloved,’ he said.